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On Saturday afternoon, May 13, 1978, the Burlington Police Department received a call about a dead body in a trailer home on Mill Dam Road north of Burlington on the city-county line. The anonymous caller phoned the Burlington police dispatch center at 11:42 a.m. Saturday, saying that a body would be found in the trailer.
According to a Hawk Eye article dated the following day, city officers Dennis Schnedler and detective Dave Smith went to the trailer, located on the east side of Mill Dam Road.
The city-county line runs down the middle of Mill Dam Road, with Harsch’s green and white mobile home situated on the county side. Burlington police then notified Des Moines County Sheriff Bob Glick.
Inside the trailer, the officials found the badly decomposed body of James Andrew Harsch, 31, lying in a hallway leading to the bedrooms from the living room.
Harsch had been beaten, struck in the back of the head, and had a quarter-inch-thick gray and brown cord tied in a square knot around his throat. He’d apparently been dead anywhere from a week up to 10 days.
Investigators on the case included the Burlington Police Department, agents with the State Bureau of Investigation — now known as the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) — and the Des Moines County Sheriff’s Department, with then-Sheriff Glick taking the lead.
The blood found throughout the trailer suggested a violent struggle.
Des Moines county medical examiner Dr. Joseph Stoikovic said Harsch’s body, clad in corduroy pants but without shirt or shoes, was found lying on its left side in a hallway between the living room and bedrooms.
Harsch rented the trailer from Preston and Mary Butler on Mill Dam Road, about a quarter mile off Iowa 99 northwest of the JI Case plant.
Glick notified Harsch’s brother, Thomas, and sister, Anita, of their brother’s death on Saturday, but said they weren’t asked to make an identification because of the body’s condition.
Investigators established the victim’s identity about 10 hours later through fingerprints, but didn’t say whether or not the cord tied around Harsch’s neck factored into his death.
Dr. Ralph Rettenmaier conducted the autopsy Saturday night at Burlington Medical Center, and said Harsch died of head injuries of unknown origin to the back of his head.
The Prestons lived just across the road from Harsch’s trailer and described their tenant as a quiet loner who didn’t drive and always put the rent check in their mailbox. Mary Butler said Harsch lived alone, and though unemployed, he’d been taking a real estate course through Southeastern Community College.
“I don’t think I ever met the man. He never bothered us,” she is later quoted as saying in a July 27, 2004 Hawk Eye story.
Investigators interviewed more than 100 individuals but still couldn’t pinpoint the exact date Harsch had last been seen alive.
Sheriff Glick said they’d been unable to locate the weapon used in the crime, but with three potential motives, the crime didn’t appear “indiscriminate.” Officials found marijuana in the trailer, and Glick cited a love triangle and retribution as two other possible motives.
Harsch had moved into the trailer the previous fall, and the Hawk Eye said they’d learned he’d been involved in trafficking drugs, particularly marijuana, but that no large quantity of drugs had been found in the mobile home.
Des Moines County Sheriff Mike Johnstone in 2004 told the Hawk Eye that despite the investigation having stalled years before, he believed people may still have information and be willing to come forward. He hoped resurrecting Harsch’s case may also lead others to come forward with information about Mary Lange’s unsolved December 1970 murder and/or that of Dorothy Miller, a 48-year-old Bolick Realty saleswoman killed Aug. 18, 1969, in an unoccupied two-story Burlington house after someone made an appointment to see the home.
Lange, a 37-year-old municipal office clerk and mother of three, suffered three blows to the head with a blunt object on Dec. 17, 1970, before being dragged, unconscious, into rural Danville’s Long Creek’s shallow waters to drown. Lange and her husband, Marvin Lange, were going through a nasty divorce and custody dispute over the couple’s children when Lange disappeared after a Christmas party for city employees.
“If they think it’s important, they should contact us because we’re very interested in any new information,” Johnstone told the Hawk Eye. “I would like to see all of these people that are responsible for all of these deaths brought to justice.”
The Iowa DCI continued to offer assistance. When they established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, James Harsch’s murder — along with that of Lange and Miller — were three of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA forensic technology.
Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.
The DCI remains committed to resolving Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.
James Andrew Harsch was born March 10, 1947 in Keokuk to Anita Elizabeth (Cousineau) and Frank Andrew Harsch.
Survivors included a brother, Thomas Harsch, Burlington; two sisters, Anita Harsch, Burlington, and Mrs. James (Alice) Howard, Davenport; and several uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces.
His parents preceded him in death.
The Sheagren Funeral Home handled arrangements.
James was laid to rest at the Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington in Des Moines County during private committal services.
Anyone with information about James Harsch’s unsolved murder is asked to contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Des Moines County Sheriff’s Office at (319) 753-8212.